Looking busy



Sears Tower, Chicago, 1977. PHOTO/AP/Charles Kelly

Let’s just get this out of the way: All jobs are bullshit jobs. Even if you’re a public defender or work for Médecins Sans Frontières, insofar as your labor is determined by a system of abstract compulsion—insofar, that is, as it exists within capitalism—it’s bullshit. You know this.

In his new book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, David Graeber is interested in a particular variety of bullshit and work. In 2013, the anthropologist and anarchist (he hates to be called “the anarchist anthropologist”) published an essay slamming the proliferation of “pointless jobs” that seem to exist “just for the sake of keeping us all working.” The response was tremendous: It turns out that many people have jobs that they believe require them to do nothing of value (or to do nothing whatsoever while trying to appear to be doing something).

Graeber sifted through the responses and solicited additional input on Twitter in a quest to categorize the “five basic types of bullshit jobs” and document the absurdist travails of those who hold them. From such data, he constructed a working definition of the subject at hand:

[A] bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

Graeber distinguishes these bullshit jobs from “shit jobs,” which serve a purpose but suck. Which is not to say that bullshit jobs don’t suck as well, but they suck precisely because they don’t serve a purpose. Much of the stress they produce—the “spiritual violence,” as Graeber terms it—results from the contortionist maneuvers that employees are forced to perform in order to pretend to be working when they have nothing to do. And as Graeber notes, this sense of purposelessness is widespread: To give just two examples, 37 percent of the UK respondents to a poll on the subject, and 40 percent of the Dutch ones, insisted that their work is utterly useless.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the century, technology would have become so far advanced that developed economies would have a 15-hour workweek. So how did we get to our current state, almost two decades into the 21st century? It turns out that Keynes was only half right—technology has advanced spectacularly, but we are far from a 15-hour workweek. Keynes thought that the developed economies would adjust to a growth in productivity by decreasing workers’ hours. Instead, capital absorbed those gains but did not free up the now-superfluous human labor—a tendency that Karl Marx noticed long ago.

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